By Bobby Cervantes
A ban on so-called "sanctuary cities" that would allow police to ask people about their immigration status and could lead to jail time for sheriffs and police chiefs who refuse to cooperate cleared its final hurdle Wednesday after the Senate voted to agree with changes House lawmakers made, sending the contentious proposal to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.
In a 20-11 party line vote, the Senate's Republican majority effectively handed Abbott his most notable political victory yet, overcoming months of strident Democratic opposition to Senate Bill 4, which would grant new powers to police officers by allowing them to question a person's immigration status if they have been detained with reasonable suspicion.
The legislation also would prohibit local jurisdictions from passing or enforcing ordinances that prohibit police officers from inquiring about a detained person's immigration status. It also would require police to honor all federal requests to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally until immigration authorities can investigate the person's status. After nearly three hours of debate Wednesday, senators accepted the House version that added several areas where SB4 would not apply, including government mental health care facilities and hospitals. Among other changes, it also would exclude officers who are contracted by religious organizations and schools, though it will apply to police departments on college campuses.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who for years championed the measure, cheered the bill's passage late Wednesday.
"This legislation will eliminate a substantial incentive for illegal immigration and help make Texas communities safer," Patrick said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Democrats and progressive groups decried the bill as a "show-me-your-papers" measure and promised to file an immediate court challenge to SB4 after Abbott signs the measure, which they predict will be found unconstitutional.
"The bill will not immediately take effect because of strong opposition by Democrats in both the Senate and the House," said Democratic Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, hinting at a court battle.
However, Attorney General Ken Paxton's office has assured Republican legislators that the bill can withstand such a lawsuit.
"We will let the court systems figure this out," said GOP Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, the bill's author.
'Status quo bill'
The term "sanctuary cities" has no legal meaning but has been used to describe jurisdictions whose elected officials restrict, in any way, their police force's cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The state's Republican leaders, including Abbott, have said the bill is necessary to stop some Texas sheriffs and police chiefs, including Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, from refusing to honor all voluntary requests from ICE to detain a person in the country illegally until federal authorities can investigate their case.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been a harsh critic of the proposal. Acevedo spoke out strongly against the bill last week, calling it a dangerous move by lawmakers that could have "negative consequences" because it would redirect limited HPD resources from crime fighting efforts to an initiative that does not improve public safety.
Acevedo did not say whether HPD would alter any policies if SB4 is signed into law, but he emphasized he intends to make public safety a priority over policies he believe are unrelated.
Calling it a "status quo bill," Perry said during the debate that his SB4 does not force a police officer to inquire about a person's immigration status nor does it allow an officer to stop someone merely to ask about their status. He defended the bill from critics who said it will lead to racial profiling and will turn Texas police officers into federal immigration authorities.
"Nowhere in the bill as it came back from the House does it instruct officers to demand papers," Perry said. "Nowhere in the bill does it allow an officer to enforce federal immigration law. Officers still do not have the authority to arrest someone merely for being unlawfully present (in the country), which is a federal power."
For months, outnumbered Democrats in both chambers tried to add a host of exemptions to the bill, including one to shield children from inquires about their immigration status and another to exclude college police departments. Other proposals would have created exceptions for homeless shelters and domestic violence centers, but Republicans rejected those amendments.
On Wednesday, several Democratic senators resurfaced those concerns and challenged Perry's claims that they had spread "non-factual substance" about SB4 to immigrant communities in their districts.
"It's gone from a bad bill to a really, really bad, horrible bill that will result in police officers investigating the immigration status of a person, including children, without probable cause," said Garcia, the Houston Democrat. "I'm afraid this legislation will lead to harassment and profiling of Latinos, and this is the last thing any of us would want ... This bill will go from a broken taillight to a broken family to broken faith in our system."
Sen. John Whitmire, another Houston Democrat, said he has heard from families who are making contingency plans in case a relative who is in the country illegally is held by police after a routine interaction.
"Where's the anxiety? Where is the worry on the floor about the unintended consequences?" he asked his Republican colleagues. "This is a gamechanger in a very negative way for hundreds, millions of Texans."
The bill now heads to Abbott, the first-term Republican governor who deemed a "sanctuary cities" prohibtion an emergency item for lawmakers this session. The designation, which Abbott made at the start of the legislative session, allowed them to begin work on SB4 at an expedited pace.
"I'm getting my signing pen warmed up," Abbott tweeted after the vote.
(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle